Portrait of a Man

I saw Santa while Lyfing a cardiac nurse home from her shift at Ronald Reagan hospital. It looked like it had been a rough night. Or two. Or maybe he had a bad case of jet lag from the flying saucer he just disembarked from.

We all know most homeless look like Jesus. Probably because they believe they are Jesus. There is a leathering process that transforms a human deportment into a general raison-like appearance.

They are pickled over time.

What set apart the one I saw on Wilshire just east of Veteran Ave in Westwood last week was his Christmas sweater, red pants, Santa hat, and … red bucket.

Especially the bucket.

Leaves one to wonder, right?    About a lot of things.

To begin with, was he early for Christmas or was this a year-long gig.  Have things tightened up that much now that Santa had to pawn off his reindeer and huff it on foot?  Was the trickle down drought now finally visible in a metric we can all comprehend; namely, that Santa’s big red bag of toys was reduced to a beach bucket?

So, yeah, for that and many reasons more, I decided to call him Santa.

Most of the wardrobe homeless adorn themselves with isn’t known for its custom tailored fit, but the sweater in question looked like an oversized cracker jack tattoo had been pressed on him with a prison modified steam iron.

He had a dysthymic liver that lent a rolling-pin like effect to his otherwise emaciated form. It looked as if he had grown fat eating himself.

Poor Santa the cannibal.  And oh pity these times we find ourselves in.

But like I said, it was the small red bucket that set him apart from the 82,000 other men, women and children who slept on the street that night*  was the small red bucket.

*(stat from Weingart Center census that also concluded 254,000 are at least partially homeless each year)

But Santa was a true American.  Determined to pull himself up by the boot straps.  An by his Olympic level of concentration, it appeared as if he was headed somewhere very important.

Maybe late for an appointment. Perhaps to plant heirloom tomatoes or volunteer in a turn of the century fire line.

Regardless of his intended destination, it gave me pause. For even Santa had to carry a moonlight job.   What has the world come to?

I wonder if he like most of the people in the back of my car have two part-time gigs that give just enough hours to not be full-time and pay him just enough not to be enough- falling in that genetically enhanced crack where he can’t be a statistic in a sound byte and not poor enough to be poor enough to qualify for some kind of assistance program.  That kind of poor.   Oh, Santa.  No wonder he has the bucket.

There’s a lot of homeless that patrol the wild DMZ around the Westwood V.A.  They have what you call perimeter duty and haven’t been relieved for some time.

So they stand their post like any dutiful soldier.

Waiting to be relieved.

Mostly these invisibles carry out their billet from hooches and make shift foxholes along the embankment of the San Diego Freeway. They like to dig into the high ground or find good cover in a thicket of weeds.

Still keeping the world safe for democracy and cashing their SSI deposits in mini-malls  check cash stands on Venice Blvd in Palms which is at least two bus rides away.

If they have an I.D.

If you see Santa on your daily commute, salute him once for me. Last I saw him he was headed east looking for all the good boys and girls.

Making his list and checking it twice….

Stopping for a bite in San Pedro

The line at the Plucky Ducky in the San Pedro Fish Market was three deep.  Even on a slow night.  Maybe because you won a prize every time or maybe because there wasn’t much else for kids to do as their parents drank.  It’s claw dropped for a quarter and never failed to satisfy.

Friday demands no good Catholic eat meat, and the mostly Latino customers at the Fish Market were adhering to custom by circling around vast piles of shrimp fajitas served family style on wax paper trays.   Like all good meals, it involved bread rather than napkins and utensils.

I opted for the fish and chips, a solitary dish for a working stiff still on the clock.

The Security Guard with the off road face bombarded by years of acne had that pep commonly found at the end of an easy shift.  Glowing, he pointed to the empty heating rack and proclaimed “look’at that, gettin’ a fresh one.”

It was more of the Lion’s Club fish fry variety than a proper chipper but my new friend intervened again and made sure I would get the special tartar sauce.

“Not the one in the packet, the one they make fresh, that’s the one you want.”

I think he was trying to impress the Clerk, a gal his age, more than he was just being friendly.

San Pedro was and is a tough town, like most towns born of commerce and steel passed over by time and convenience. But you couldn’t see it in the faces of any of the families  or employees there.   Especially the Guard — who gave me the tip about the tartar sauce–  He glowed with the ease of a Landed Englishman on holiday. Perhaps because he had worn down the Clerk and managed to make her smile and mess her drawer count up.

No.  Everything is okay on a Friday night.  Even if it’s not.

A tug boat was sea-bound to intercept the next freighter full of shit from China. It’s diesel rumble moaned above the kids cheering on the Plucky Ducky .  Across the channel, the industrial glow of Terminal Island maintained a mirage of power.

The mud flats of Tim’s Landing have become something indeed since their theft  over a century ago.  I don’t know the story of its origins but can surmise it involved a German Merchant swindling Chumash Indians out of something.  Maybe that was what some war was about.   Regardless.  How much of America was brought in here, sent out…?

More of the former and less of the later these days … as more freighters leave emptier than they arrived.

The small Dixie Cup of Cholula hot sauce was not authentically English but provided a great accent to a well battered piece of white fish.  The fish was so battered that you would think its proper habitat was in buttermilk and not the ocean.  It felt a little more like fried chicken, but I didn’t mind, all pretense as to its origin vanished in the special sauce.

The coleslaw was chunky and crisp, but eluded my fork, the same way understanding of urban decay eludes nostalgia.  Berthed on a dock between here and Terminal Island was a battleship that had helped win a world war now recommissioned to play movies on weekend nights in the summer.  It felt small like everything else in the port of Los Angeles.

Trains don’t run up Harbor Boulevard anymore, and haven’t for some time, but their tracks remain.  It costs too much to remove I guess.  I wondered if all of this would be missed as the art galleries and craft beer halls and cold press coffee houses take hold and the inevitable condo-ifying of our angel city finds its way down here, after going ten rounds in the city counsel.    I can see the real-estaters twisting their mustaches as they string hanging lanterns that look good in Instagram shots across the downtown streets.

The laughter of familia, lightened by shrimp fajitas and colorful drinks in tall plastic cups that demanded two hands brought me out of my nostalgia.

I left a fry and a corner of a filet but did manage to make a dent in the special sauce.   I put my tray in the trash as another kid pulled a cheap toy out of the bowels of the Plucky Ducky. 

Probably something from China off loaded by a longshoremen across the way.

Zen and the art of picking the right taco truck

Things to look for when choosing a taco truck: (for beginners)

  1. Buckets.  Buckets for seats.  Buckets for salsa verde and rojo.  Buckets of radishes.  Look for the Buckets.
  2. Tables.  Not to eat on just to house said buckets.
  3. Plastic Bags.  To tie up pickled peppers and carrots.  You should be expected to take care of yourself.  Beyond the meat and masa.
  4. Look for open fire.  Indirect heat.  Something on wheels besides the truck.  Where something that looks like a junk yard carcass is cooking on a spit (Pastor).
  5. The pineapple atop said spit is like the star of Bethlehem.  Without it, all pilgrims be wary.  It is the coded sketch in the sand that no demagoguery will be tolerated there.
  6. Not too many white people looking at their phones.
  7. Telemundo. Yes.  Spanish language TV is a good sign.
  8. No prices.
  9. Cash only.
  10. You are expected to order in Spanish and have to go through a vetting ritual to order otherwise.
  11. A system that involves your number being called out in Spanish.  Not being told what that number is is also a good indicator.  The more anarchy the better the flavor.
  12. No neon.  But not a totally white greasy truck either.  Somewhere in between.  Pictures might be a warning – like fake news on alt web sites.
  13. Generations of a family that have lived in this neighborhood you just moved into for a long time.  The sense that their elders are anchored there and will not shift like our continents do.
  14. No one asks you to follow them on Yelp.
  15.  The sound of masa being slapped between two hands.
  16. A general adversarial quality.  The sense that you may be trespassing. Because indeed you are.  And should behave like a guest in the royal palace and adopt to local custom or get short spooned from the secondary pot.
  17. As a general note, a sense of community, rather than opportunism like being near a Salsa club.  A tent set up on La Cienega just south of Century Blvd is my favorite.  It does not even have a truck.  They service the all night shift workers who work in the industries that beseige the airport.
  18. Look for the warm glow of hanging work lamps in an otherwise poorly lit neighborhood.

 

A scratch and sniff guide to the streets of L.A.

Some streets smell of butter mushrooms, some urine. La Cienega just south of Jefferson smells like a cup of hot cocoa to me. The See’s Chocolate plant provides that touch of sweetness to an otherwise dismal commute.

So do the street carts and tortilla air down every boulevard where rent is still cheap.

Tacos el Pastor with pineapple and diesel gasoline.

Haskell and Corbin smells like a brewery because there is one– Budweiser.  Roasted hops boiling and cooling in stainless steel vats spills out into the north valley night and day.

Just south of there, Oxnard, the great tributary of the valley,  proudly boasts its brand of Bondo and automotive paint. Continuing up Van Nuys toward the 5 south of Panorama City, just drive till you can feel  chicken fat dripping over an open fire and pull over for a touch of something you can’t get in a shopping mall.

Hopping on the 5, one can smell the rust and sugar of scrap metal, junk yards, and wholesale recycling.

Flower vendors along Forrest lawn peddle last-minute funeral bouquets and indirectly cover the stench of manure and feed from the equestrian center.

Oh and in case you don’t know, Hollywood smells of trash and hype.

Chinatown?  Fish ice and herbs, compost, roots and all.

It also smells of the wrecking ball– if that had a smell…

LAX smells of grilled onions oddly enough, because above the jet fuel, burgers cooked animal style at the IN and OUT greet us before the traffic does.

Skid row doesn’t really smell as it should. If it did have an odor, it would be of vinyl. Wet vinyl. Mildewed and now burning in summer heat.

And sulphur – discharged from the devil buried in every crack pipe.

There’s Korean BBQ and cigarette smoke in those that get in and out of my back seat. Unlit weed in green plastic jars from dispensaries. The Cologne their Armenian owners wear because their beliefs disavow deodorant. McDonald’s french fries. And old dog.

Los Angeles lives in my nose and on the contour map of my mind. A scratch and sniff map indeed filled with refineries and bakeries, just lit back yard Hibachis and kettle corn.   Seasonal delights of night-blooming jasmine and orange blossoms tickle  with a prelude of spring in between an endless parade of carnivals, markets and holy days to mark the miles and days.  I still smell community and family on Caesar Chavez and in Echo Park on Sundays… The sangre of it all.

And the rain, nothing like the rain after a long dry spell.

a word or two in defense of radio

I don’t think of time of day in terms of hours and minutes but radio. I hear the days of the week spin on my FM dial.  Not a calendar or  watch.

Saturday afternoon is Rock Steady and Doo-Wap – occasionally Northern Soul, always old timey and usually ends with Nothing but the Blues as night falls on our angel city.

Later, it’s Frank Sinatra in tandem with the elusive independent DJ “Cowboy Nick” who is felt even more in his absence than any Patsy Cline cut he spins. And if I’m early to rise, maybe I swing a little big band. Drive with Benny Goodman or maybe dream on a story of Dinah Washington.

When Seven PM rolls around it’s time for the Record Shelf with Jim Svedja on KUSC whose voice brings comfort to a changing world.

Weeknights are typically NPR heavy; anchored by All things Considered, but if the news is bad, as it often is, I drift up the dial, cruising through the classic rock stations that Clear Channel runs in search of something other than Journey or The Eagles.

Occasionally, a Stones cut from Exile on Main Street or a Neil Young gem appears. But like all of life, these moments, though transcendent, are still elusive and quite temporary.

But despite this noble truth, there are a few things that remain fixed for me.

Things just don’t sound the same on the AM dial, like life without love, ruled by hard facts and endless opinion .  It even feels like it is broadcast from a cave somewhere.

Further, I am never not in the mood for The Alman Brothers and Stevie Wonder always asks me to turn the volume up and roll the windows down.

Even on cooler days.

A Beatles tune can get skipped, as sacrilegious as that sounds, but never Sam Cooke. Sadly, it’s becoming harder to find Sam Cooke on the radio these days and he just doesn’t sound the same on Spotify.

Neither does Guy Clarke, or John Prine, or Townes… Bowie, Bonnie Raitt…

The refuge of all that is good usually deposits itself in the basement of the FM dial. Anywhere south of Ninety one point something is safe. The good stuff, the rare stuff and source stuff is always found in the Eights. The main stream is a curated nightmare ruled by algorithms, royalties, and an unrefined palette.   However, there is a good vibe or two left on the air waves.

In general, the earlier or later  in the day, the better the programming.   Only insomniacs or early morning commuters get the mercy of real radio anymore. The rest have to settle for star fucking, ticket giveaways and sports radio. But the low-end of the dial early in the AM on weekends finds us time to commune with the Dylan Hour and a chance to attend Gospel brunch or listen to Allan Watts, Amy Goodman, Little Stevie and Twisted Roots.

Wild horses run free still where and when ratings don’t matter.

They say the first thing one does in a revolution is take over the air waves. I think of that every time I catch a diamond and sing along my way and whenever I hear that awful brain rot jingle to Kars for Kids. 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

A tip for all you would be travelers out there.

From Earnest- whose, “boy Chris hooked him up with a ride,” from the parking lot he worked at as a swing shift Patrol Guard…

Don’t park at his lot.

Anytime, really. But especially around the holidays.

“Telling you, they come from all over to break into your car this time of year.”

Things really are tightening up as even criminals must now commute to rob us of our shit.

“And they don’t pay me to be a hero, know what I mean?”

Earnest told me his ten bucks an hour didn’t cut it as we came around like dive bombers out of Walhalla and descended into the northbound 110 from the 105 on-ramp.

I recalled there was a poor air quality surcharge authorized by the city for anyone who works in close proximity to the airport. Chronic lung disease gets you an extra buck an hour, in case you were not aware, but obviously security guards didn’t qualify– Probably because Earnest was subcontracted through an off-shore company with ties in Northern Europe.

“They be thieving your trunk, smashing your window when you off grabbing yourself a turkey leg. Soon as you get on that plane. Car alarms always be popping. Personally, I wait a few minutes in my golf cart, let them get done with their business – best not run into a lion while they eat… A lot of paperwork.   Time logs and paper work.”

He had a runny nose as most people who make their living outdoors often do.

Like the smash and grabbers he tended to avoid, Earnest’s commute was far off, too. A 14.00 dollar Lyft ride. Which used to be a 50.00 cab ride. He lived off Vernon and the 110. That’s in South Central for all you white people.  (More about that in another post…)

Animals migrate for water and safe habitats to raise their young, often crossing continents and oceans. And we brave numbered roads in single file veins of red as the distance between where we work and where we live is widened by the economic divide.

Even for criminals. Especially, for criminals.

Fish wives and a remembrance of things past

“It’s eight PM and I’m hammered, dancing with a puffin fish in some guy’s condo. I wasn’t even going to go out cause I needed to rest my voice, but I put on Ziggy Stardust and trained the fish to dance with me, so… He tried to follow, but couldn’t handle the B sides.”

It’s amazing what you can learn by listening to someone in the rear viewed mirror.

The Fish wife complained about her Winter Spiced Latte from Starbucks they made twice and still got wrong. She was two hours late for a two o’clock lunch. “Then, I looked in the mirror and just had to get my nails done…” There seemed to be a trend developing…

She promised to tip me. I knew she wouldn’t. The more someone says they will take care of you, the more you know they will not.

After waiting for her Starbucks, I waited again for her to change.

It used to cost a lot of money to hire a car but now it was .12 cents a minute.

As I waited, I recalled something Edgar said to me when he was training me to be a valet several years back at a boutique luxury hotel. “The problem with this time, Monito (*yes, he called me little monkey) is that  uhh… people want to be V.I.P. but they no want to pay like V.I.P.”   I had gone to college, read Plato and Sartre, traveled all over the world, but somehow no truer words had ever been spoken.  Edgar was a lifer valet.  No ambitions to be a Supervisor.  He liked to bet on anything, go salsa dancing on the weekends, and believed Anthony Quinn to be the greatest man that ever lived.  He sold watches on the side and his face would soften when he mentioned repairing things with his daughter grown old now.

The Fish-wife reappeared from her condo in a fur vest. When she got back in my car I could smell she had gotten fortified with some vodka.

“I’m so nervous. I really want this apartment I can’t afford.”

I wondered what she did for a living. But somehow suspected by her air of desperation, the botox / collagan, and her address in the Marina that she was a Divorcee. Living off an alimony. Maybe several.

I dropped her off along the pier then cleared the air of vodka with a smudge of Palo Santo. Her gait wobbled in a not so straight line toward the flags clanging on the yard arms.

The man in the Ithaca College shirt

A Day Laborer outside the north gate of the Home Depot on Wilton and Sunset Blvd had an Ithaca College T-shirt on. It was well after noon and his best bet would be a patch job, to help someone move, or dig a fence post.

Many of his competitors also had T-shirts that didn’t match their station in life. I wondered where they stashed their tools. The younger among them had backpacks but those leathered to waiting by the gate knew any job they would be picked up for would require only one tool- their backs.

As a driver, I see much of the angel city and share in its private life every day. I don’t need to listen to the news to see what’s going on. What’s been going on for some time. I know every golf course, graveyard, and ninety nine cent store. I know the faces of the hungry. I feel the pulse of time on the asphalt that is how I have made my living these past few years.

I chart her vitals in the whirl of the combustible engine and price of gasoline. I know what the Postal Worker, truck driver, and sanitation worker all know. I feel the decline of our empire in every high rise construction site that uses material not built too last. I’ve watched a thousand suns burn off and I know what the night does inside a man. You have been in my car many times. And, I, in yours. Together, we find our way through the gridlock and home safe again. Daily, we pass Mister Invisible at the Depot in the Ithaca College T-shirt and some days we see him.  On others….

It’s later now, the exodus east has long since started for the starving class and the man in the Ithaca College T-shirt is nowhere to be seen. I hope he found a little work but doubt he did.

FATHERS AND SONS

FATHERS AND SONS

The San Frenando valley north of Saticoy is dominated by industrial warehouses, poor street lamps, lavanderias, and strip clubs. Lots of strip clubs.

“Have you had anybody else in your car from Guam?” my passenger asked.

“You’re the first by way of Alabama.” He laughed. And called me sir a lot. So did his Son. I knew they were both military right away.

I thanked them for their service. Senior deflected and lauded praise on his son as Special Forces, Iraq and so on. Junior’s eyes fell down as he volleyed the praise back to his dad, now retired, for being the real hero.

“Cooks and suppliers keep us all going.”

We laughed about his father’s backward English and the phrase Cheek-butts instead of butt-cheeks. They talked about their wives and ex wives. And finished each discourse poking fun at Guam.

“You guys have the highest per capita veteran population in all of the U.S.”

They agreed and called me sir again.

It’s strange to hear a sixty-year-old man call you Sir.

Junior worked in Executive security now. He had that opaque quality and mass that very few possess.

Most of these kinds of rides visit the ATM between the bar and the strip club. And this one was no different. As we waited for Junior to exit the Mobile gas station on Roscoe, Senior asked how hard it was to find weed but it took a few moments to even understand him…

Maybe it was the Alabama – Guam dialect thing mixed with broken English, or maybe just my surprise at his calling it weed, but I could see in his eyes, it was a legitimate concern — and one he didn’t feel comfortable bringing up in front of his son, but very at ease with a total stranger he would never see again.

I joked, “Really? In California.”

He reminded me that you need a card.   That there weren’t dealers.

“No dealers, no cabs… strange place…”

 

“Yeah, I guess one of my friends at the club got a dinner plate from one of her Regulars.”

A Regular is someone who attends a Strip Club often enough to be deemed as such and may or may not believe a fantasy that he/she/ they/ it is in some kind of relationship with a favorite Dancer.

“Like one of those commemorative plates you buy on TV?” I asked.

“No, just a plate. From his kitchen.”

For a moment, the natural order of the world was apparent to me. I had just dropped off the Guam Boys at one such club and was now picking up my next passenger at a second altogether different club less then two miles away– who smelled like a bouquet of seasonal flowers designed in a chemist lab. I never got her name, so let’s call her Rose.   Rose was a dancer. But a niche dancer. Had the kind of cheek butts that Junior and Senior held in such high regard

“I coulda made a couple grand tonight. But my manager still got a beef. “ I said nothing. Instead, decided whether Sherman Way or Roscoe would be quicker.

“I showed up really faded a few months back. Then took a few Xanax cause I was nervous when my friends showed up.”

Rose told me how she was a cosmetologist. They always do. She wasn’t like the other girls who, “this is all they have, you know? With the Botox, the fake lips, fake tits.” She explained the working dynamics and unique economics of her profession while adding that she once had to, “fish out a bag of coke stuck to her tits,” a customer had given her as a tip.

Rose reiterated that she could have made a few grand that night and how she was a tom boy at heart and hates getting, “dolled up and doing her hair,” then volleyed back at me, “I mean, you telling me someone gonna give you a thousand dollars to wave your balls around, you wouldn’t do it?”

I turned on her street and slowed down.

“A hundred dollars for ten minutes’ time…”

I couldn’t tell if I was being dared.

Rose asked for me to drop her around the corner so she could walk in the garage. She was more self conscious about being seen here, close to home, than she was where I picked her up.

I watched her hobble down the ramp of her garage in high heels, turned the meter off, and went home.